Internment or incarceration? Why words matter to describe the Japanese American wartime experience

Internment or incarceration? Why words matter to describe the Japanese American wartime experience
Japanese American citizens wait in line for their assigned homes at a camp reception center in Manzanar, Calif., on March 24, 1942. (AP Photo) (Source: AP)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Over the years, there’s been confusion and debate over words and terminology used to describe the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II — and the use of euphemisms to downplay its severity.

Although the word “internment” can be used to describe Honouliuli, the National Park Service is working to transition some of the terminology associated with the mainland camps in hopes of accurately reflecting the wartime experiences of Japanese Americans.

Here are some of the terms that are frequently used and why words matter.


The term internment has been widely used as a way to describe camps on the mainland, but internment is defined as the imprisonment of “enemy” nationals. However, two-thirds of prisoners during World War II were U.S. citizens by birthright, the National Park Service says.

Internment can be used for Honouliuli, however, because there were prisoners of war from Japan, Okinawa, Korea, Taiwan and Italy.


The government also used “relocation center” to describe the longer-term camps for Japanese Americans, but scholars believe it suggests a hospitable setting and ignores the harsh conditions of these facilities.

Concentration camps

Some government officials, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, called them concentration camps.

Historians and scholars say “concentration camp” is accurate to use to depict the inhumane conditions that Japanese Americans experienced, but they also believe that it’s a euphemism for the Nazi camps that deserve the designation of “death camps” and “killing centers.”

Meanwhile, critics of the words concentration camp would argue it’s a term associated with camps created by the Nazis during the Holocaust. But by definition, a concentration camp is “a camp where civilians, enemy aliens, political prisoners, and sometimes prisoners of war are detained and confined, typically under harsh conditions.”


NPS is currently using the “bridging” term incarceration, which accurately refers to imprisonment of all 120,000 Japanese Americans who were affected by Executive Order 9066.

Hanako Wakatsuki, the first superintendent of Oahu’s Honouliuli National Historic Site, has officially started in her new role. It’s one of the first steps needed to begin redeveloping the site and start telling the story of all those who spent time at the camp and 15 others like it in Hawaii. At the same time, there’s a push to move away from historic terms that misstate the wartime experience of Japanese Americans. To learn more about the Wakatsuki, including her family history, perspectives and hopes for Honouliuli, click here.

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